Only four running backs touched the ball 300 times in 2020, tied for the lowest mark in the past 10 years. And while injuries to Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley certainly had something to do with that, it's also representative of a trend. NFL teams are leaning more and more towards committees, which could only be exacerbated by a 17th game being added to the season.
That trend is one reason why proven workhorses like McCaffrey, Barkley, and Dalvin Cook stand out amongst the crowd. And as you can see from the tiers below, we expect Jonathan Taylor, D'Andre Swift, and Cam Akers to join them in short order. What's less certain is whether any back from the 2021 class can help fill the void that will soon be left by Derrick Henry (and maybe Ezekiel Elliott). I'm not optimistic.
Najee Harris is clearly the best candidate after he landed in Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin's Steelers are one of the few that has shied away from the committee approach. Even last year, James Conner averaged 16 touches per game despite leaving multiple games early due to injury. During the six-week stretch that Conner was totally healthy, he averaged exactly 20 touches per game. Harris is believed to be more talented than Conner, so if he can learn his passing down responsibilities, the sky could be the limit.
Travis Etienne is a back who has the potential skill set to be a three-down back, but with James Robinson still on the roster and Urban Meyer talking about a three-back rotation, it doesn't sound like we'll get that workload in 2021. Still, I wouldn't discount the possibility in the future, like I would with Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, and Trey Sermon. They were committee backs in college, which doesn't often portend a feature role in the NFL.
What does this all mean for the running back landscape? One, know your format. In PPR, we're going to have to get more comfortable with pass-catching backs as Fantasy starters. But, maybe most importantly, the true feature backs are going to have increased value. At least for as long as they can stay healthy.
Here are the updated running back tiers: